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This interview reprinted by permission from Maria Granditsky, who had the pleasure of speaking with Leroy "Sugar" Bonner regarding the history of the Ohio Players and funk music in general. The interview occured in 1988 after the release of OP's "BACK" album on Track Records.

Maria works as a freelance R&B journalist in Stockholm, Sweden.

For those new to the funk, Sugar was (is) one of the most influential guitarists and vocalists in funk music. He has been the Ohio Players lead guitarist since 1964, and lead vocalists since 1974. His fusing of jazz/funk guitar with rock, as well as his slinky vocals, practically defined the genre.


Q:
I believe you started out as the Ohio Untouchables and that you supported The Falcons, whose lead singer was Wilson Pickett on the r & B hit "I Found A Love" in -62. But when and how did you get together as a band? When were the Ohio Players formed?

Sugar:
OK, well. When it (the group was called) the Ohio Untouchables. I was just a young boy, trying to get into the group at the time. Back then the band was called Robert Ward and the Untouchables and they were the ones that recorded with Wilson Pickett and "I Found A Love". But then Robert didn't stay with the group and I took over group and we sort of became the Ohio Players after that. It was back in the 60's.

band mid-60's
Q:
Yes, your first own single was released on Lupine and it was called "I'm Tired". And after what I heard, like you said, the band went through some trouble and Robert Ward tried to disband the group.

Sugar:
Well, they never could get along quite well so they sort of broke up. That was when they (the band) were called Robert Ward and the Untouchables. When they broke up, the the horn players and the bassplayer from the Ohio Unotouchables, they all became the Ohio Players and that was four members.


Q:
What was the line-up?


Sugar:
That was ahh, they had two horns, guitar, bass and drums at the time, in those days, and when I joined the group we added a keyboard player and another guitarist


Q:
How come you changed the name to Ohio Players?

Sugar:
Well, in Ohio they sort of got a thing about you know, players, sort of like playboy and I guess the name stuck with us cause we were always considered to be the playboys around the area. And we were some of the best musicians that there were in the area, we were the best players..


Q:
In 1968 you met producer John Brantley and recorded your first album in New York on Compass records called "Observations In Time". Is that correct?

Sugar:
Yes, you're very correct about that..I didn't think anybody in the world knew that! (laughs).


Q: How was it received when it came out?

Sugar:
Well, believe it or not, I was not performing the vocals in those days, I was sort of like in the background, singing behind another guy named Dutch Robinson who was in the group at that time. That came about because Johnny was from New York and Dutch was from New York too and Johnny had the studio and he persuaded Dutch to sing with us as an experiment and it worked out so well that we decided to put an album out. It turned out fairly well..Didn't raise any great eyebrows but it did let us know that we had recording abilities.


Q:
How did you get contracted to Westbound?

Sugar:
Well, now that wasn't easy! 'Cause were out on the road a lot. We always had a good reputation as live performers so eventually record company people was starting to come around and listen to us. We happened to be in California at the time, I think, and Westbound was a company from Detroit. So they came down to see us perform and right then and there wanted to discuss deals with us. In those days it was a very cheap deal, but we needed it.


Q:
Your first album on Westbound, "Pain", sounded dramatically different from "Observations In Time". Some see it as the very first funk album in history. Was funk accepted in those days, or was it like George Clinton said, a bad word?

Sugar:
Funk is..I can't say that it's ever been totally accepted. Because it is a lot of different variations to it. There's cross-over funk, streetfunk, disco funk, all kinds of funk. I can't say that it's ever really truly been accepted in the form or in the sense that I knew it to be. But back in those days, if you weren't funky you weren't worth listening to! And the bands I grew up with, all of them wanted to be funk bands because that's what people wanted to dance to.


Q:
What or who were your major influences?

Sugar:
Believe it or not a lot of the people that we were out on the road with, like The Funkadelics, they had a great influence in our funk and then people like Bootsy Collins, you know, the big stars.. Sly Stone.. They all influenced us over the years, but when we were coming up we sort of like listened to the Jazz Crusaders. We had our own style of funk in Ohio and we still do. Inspirations for me personally.. I'd say Miles Davis..He's about my favorite artist and Bobby Womack and Sly..Earth, Wind and Fire did some beautiful things also.


Q:
From where did funk-music originate in your opinion?
early westbound years
Sugar:
The funk was born the next day after the blues. The blues was slow and without rhythm and soon as the blues was over that's when the funk was created. To take away some of the sadness of the blues. And that's basicly true about the music. Funk is a sort of happy blues to me.


Q:
It seems as if people need to have one hero, one person or band to give the whole credit for creating the music we now call funk. Most often James Brown, Sly Stone or George Clinton are held up as being the true, most significant person. You were there, so how do you look at it?

Sugar:
One fortunate thing about this is that when they mention James Brown's name and the era that he came from they'll have to mention my name along. I was right there next to him, making great music. And whether they want to give the credit to him, I say let's give the credit to everyone that was involved in that era! Music does not belong to one individual and what goes on in an era does not belong to one individual either. People build off from what I do, I build off from what they do, that's what it's all about. I'm proud to have been around. To be mentioned along with James Brown, Kool & The Gang, Earth, Wind and Fire and a bunch of other people from that era.


Q:
On the "Pain" album you added Walter "Junie" Morrison on keyboards and he left the group in 1974 to pursue a solo career and later became a part of George Clinton's P-funk mob. How did you come in contact with Junie?

Sugar:
When we formed the Ohio Players we wanted to stretch out and become more of a jazz-orientated group so we needed a keyboard player. At that particular time Walter Morrisson was still in school, I think, and he was really a nice keyboard player, doing TV shows and things. We went to do a show and he was there rehearsing and we found that he was not only doing keyboards, he played drums, guitar and a bunch of other things. It fit right in with what we were doing 'cause we were really the most progressive group around Ohio and we needed somebody that was really progressive too and he was the baddest player.


Q:
"Pain" was the first of a whole series of albums where you had a naked woman on the cover, doing some truly freaky things..Who came up with that concept?

Sugar:
Well, sex is an immediate eyecatcher for all people, expecially a beautiful woman is sure enough an eyecatcher..And that it happens to be a record inside makes it even better, especially if it's a good record. It just seemed to be a natural concept for us to want to identify with the best there is in life..Put 'em both together and that's what our music's about. It's about love, sexiness, jazziness, controvercy..if we're lucky (laughs).


Q:
You followed up "Pain", with "Pleasure" and "Ecstacy". Tell me about the changes within the group during that period?

Sugar:
Well, on the "Pain", "Pleasure" and "Ecstacy" albums we had Junie Morrison as a lead vocalist and I never did sing lead that much until after he left the group. After that we made "Skin Tight" and that was our first platinum album. So whatever happened between Walter and the new Ohio Players was greatly welcome by me! (laughs). After "Skin Tight" we continued to make more gold and platinum albums..It was just that we needed a change. We kept going through changes in the group, as far as lead vocalists were concerned, the band always stayed the same. We might pick up a man here, a man there but the basic characters of the group always stayed the same. The ones that did the writing, producing, arranging and playing certain parts always remained doing that type of work. And it's still that way today, it keeps the peace in the band. When we shifted to Mercury we added Billy Beck, a fine keybard player and vocalist.


Q:
You signed with Mercury in 1974 and your first album on that label was "Skin Tight", followed up by "Fire" and "Honey" (1975).

Sugar:
Yes, "Honey" went platinum like "Skin Tight" and "Fire" and it was one of our biggest albums and the most controversial one! (laughs). Because of the album cover and the way it was situated. But to us "Honey" was really our apex as far as career was concerned. We really reached the pinnacle when we wrote "Honey". I would presume it's the best that we'we ever done.


gold records!Q:
The very same year, 1975, Westbound released an album called "Rattlesnake" which is confusing since you weren't signed to that label any longer. What was your reaction to that record being released?

Sugar:
They (Westbound) called it "Rattlesnake" because they were trying to get back at us for leaving them and going with Mercury. It was their way of saying to us that we were snakes (laughs). Then they had the one with the girl stabbing a man in the back. (Climax,1974). This was all confrontations from them about their disapproval of us going with Mercury and having platinum albums. Not only that I never received any money from Westbound for those albums. I ain't mad but I really don't know what to say about that..This only shows what happens to stars that have recorded music for all their life and as soon as they make a hit record people they've recorded for in the past reissue stuff and they put it on the market. Most of is not of the quality as what the artist has finally grown up to to date. But they do that 'cause the name is big and there's somebody gonna come along and buy it and say "I gotta quit bying so and so's records, it wasn't worth nothing". There's a lot of unfairness in the industry towards the artists..


Q:
In 1976 you released "Contradiction" and in -77 "Mr. Mean", on which two new members were added, Chet Willis and Robert "C.D." Jones. The next LP was "Angel" which to me indicated a clear change in the sound of the band. For example you began using sweeping syntheziers, slap bass and somehow it sounded different from what you'd previosly done. What was responsible for the change? And how did the fans respond?

Sugar:
Technology. Technology was responsable for the change. Fans will respond good to any performer that can play and has talent. It doesn't matter about what technique they're using to do it 'cause we all strive to find different techniques to conquer the same goal. But when people to go see a show and the performace is great and the sound is great they usually don't care about how he managed to come up with the sound. But we came up with the sound that we have today because we're trying to keep up with technology. Technology has taken the ship and turned and people are being programmed to deal with this technology by the radio stations. And we have to be addressed of it, know what it's about. We're still trying to use it our way we're not trying to let is use us so far. But we have to make changes. For instance we don't have horns now, we use keyboards instead and that makes things more up-to-date sounding.


Q:
How do you feel about all this technology? Does't it upset you not to have real horns?

Sugar:
It upsets me very greatly but what can I do about it, you know, I'm just one little fish in the pool. But I can tell you what upsets me more and that is the fact that we're letting technology take our jobs. A drum machine is not a human being! And it has taken a lot of people out of their jobs. And now kids can go into the musicstore and buy himself talent in a box. Not before long, someone's gonna come along and put that kid on record and before you know it he thinks he's a musician! He's got a job, he's in the business, but he don't know the first thing about playing drums! That's how come someone who does play drums can't get a job. I hate it for a lot of reasons, I even hate it for keyboards. You can't synthesize life. That's what it's all about. They take a sample of somebody, re-procuce it and that's not the way God intended it to be.


Q:
Jass-ay-Lay-Dee was released in 1978, that was you last album on Mercury. In 1979 you switched to Arista for "Everybody Up". What was going on internally at that time?

Sugar:
At this time we had fallen off the charts. We were still doing good, but we wasn't selling gold and platinum. People in the group was starting to get restless and wanted to do other things so we did. Went through some changes in the group again, the music changed, we kept on struggling, trying to get there. Eventually the group just disbanded and we stayed disbanded for about eight years, I would imagine, until one day Diamond (James Williams) called me up and said "man, let's go back to work". And from that day on we were back together working. We called up everybody else those who wanted to work, those who didn't and here we are today the Ohio Players, ready to wear the world out.


Q: Why did you split up?
sugar with doubleneck
Sugar:
People were going crazy, wanted to do other things..You know, you got a little money and you got the time and things were going real slow why not do something else? So we disbanded the group and people started doing other things, other professions, some guys opening up studios, everyody went their own little way. We all went out in the world to see what we could do on our own. It wasn't like we were enemies, we just wanted to see how far we could go on our own.


Q:
"Everybody Up" is to me kinda like "the Ohio Players goes disco". Why did you convert do disco?

Sugar:
We did not convert (laughs).. disco sort of came about because of (laughs even more)..What I meant to say was that we never really changed what we were doing we just did more of it in another fashion. We just play and they happened to call it disco, you know, we don't change, we don't have a category that we put ourselves in. Our music is our music and it comes up that way..it sounds like disco, that's fine..if it doesn't, that's fine but we don't be deliberately trying to make disco music. We're just trying to make good music.


Q:
Could you tell me about the outside productions you did, I'm thinking of Kitty and The Heywoods, Faze-O and I know that Diamond had a group called Shadow.

Sugar:
Yeah, we produced Kitty Heywood, don't know if they got a gold record or not, but Faze-O got a gold 45 and I think that's about it for that time. Shadow was James Williams, Chet Willis and Billy Beck. They had three albums out and were doing fairly well in the marketplace for a while. They were the rhythm section of the Ohio Players.


Q:
After "Everybody Up" there's a two year gap before the next albums, first "Ouch" then "Tenderness". "Ouch" was the first LP since "Observations In Time" where you used an outside producer; Richard "Dimples" Fields. How come you chose to work with him, as opposed to producing yourselves?

Sugar:
Producer, yeah right, that's what he said he was! (laughs). I personally felt it was the worst I'd ever seen. I didn't have any say-so about it so I had to deal with the way it was. After that we did the first album that I really had a lot of say-so on, "Tenderness". Of all the albums I've ever made for mine, I think I like "Tenderness" the best. Because I got the chance to really write some good things. Even though it never did catch on selling I think one day it will..when people know what I wrote.


Q: Speaking of good song material..Of all the songs you've written, which one is your favorite?

Sugar:
Ehhhhhhh...."I Wanna Be Free".


Q:
Both "Tenderness" and "Ouch" are more like soul albums, far from the raw funk you cut in the 70's. And Ohio Players then consisted of only four original members. How come you took a more soulfull approach?

Sugar:
It's like with everything we do. Some people do the same old thing, but that is just not growing, it's stagnation. We really stretch out and try to find areas, new directions to take music because that's what makes life interesting. You don't wanna reproduce the same kinda thing over and over again.


Q:
After 1981 you didn't record until 1984 when "Graduation" was released. Billy Beck, Marshall Jones, Ralph Middlebrooks along with some other guys formed a new Ohio Players. You weren't on that album, but Billy Beck seemed to compensate for you by singing in a way which was almost an exact copy of your style. How did you feel about that?

Sugar:
I think its' wonderful that I have to be imitated (laughs). I'm glad to know that whatever I do is so profound that people have to copy it in order to feel like that they've gotten over that bridge, if that's the way that is. He's the best at doing it, I would say that, 'cause he's been around, he's had more experience in doing it and I really like it. That's what it's all about, I mean, I'm working every day to make somebody copy me, I'm not working everyday so that they don't care at all. I hope somebody copies me and I hope I come up with some great idea that catches on real tough. It's really flattery in a sense and it's also my living..I better come up with something like that! (laughs)


Q:
The next thing I heard from you was your guest appearance on Roger Troutman's "Midnight Hour" and in 1985 he produced your very first solo album. How did you and Roger meet?

Sugar:
We were born in the same town, Hamilton, Ohio. I sort of like grew up with him, we exchanged ideas over the years on guitar and whatever. He used to come to my shows when he was a kid, watched me play. We've been friends over the years and eventually he had a record out and bought a studio in Dayton. He asked me to come by and do something and I wasn't doing anything so he decided to make an album there. It was called "Sugar Kiss".


Q:
In my mind, Dayton in the 70's was what Minneapolis was in the 80's. There were just so many bands coming out of Dayton..Midnight Star, Lakeside..the list is so long. How come there's so much talent in Dayton?

Sugar:
We raise a lot of children! (laughs). All of these small groups, well they're not small now, some of them are very big, they all used to come around us, hang around us and we sort of turned the whole city into a musical thing. There was a lot of talent..They're all grown up now, they're all on their own and they're all doing things. It was like that, you know, we were the biggest success to come out of Ohio in quite a while so we had a real strong impact here. That naturally made a lot of young people want to get into the field of music that we're in.


Q:
The band shifted record labels many times after leaving Mercury. You've already said that it was not internal problems within the group that led to the breakup. But do you feel that you've had problems dealing with record companies?

Sugar:
They sit behind a desk and do their thing and I stand behind a mike and do mine and that's two different things. As long as I live I will always have trouble with those people. They don't have very much respect for what I do and I tend not to have very much for what they do if they don't do a good job.


Q:
What made the Ohio Players get back together again in 1988 for the "Back" album on Track records?

Sugar:
Well, I would like to think out of love, necessity and desire..There's good reasons to come back together..for anyone (laughs)..

Back in 1988
Q:
I really enjoy the new album "Back". To me it shows that after twenty years in the business you still have something to give..How's it doing in the States?

Sugar:
Thank you, I hope that's what I'm here for..To give..I'm glad that the album sounds like that to you and I hope that it really catches on. But even if it doesn't. I'll feel very happy in knowing that we did the best we could do with what we had to do it with. That makes us happy. We're all very pleased with the album and all we want now is for the public to get a chance to hear it. And we're fighting for that and we're willing to work for that and we'll wait for that.


Q:
What do you plan for the future?

Sugar:
We plan to do God's will, whatever that is. But we have goals in music. We're trying to make music come back from what it is on the radio today. That is my main purpose for playing..God, they don't play music anymore, they play noise and then they give it a name. There's no writing to it at all, songs don't have no meaning, rap this and rap that..Even if it's rap, we wanna improve on it, whatever is being done today we wanna improve on it. 'Cause right now it ain't too good as far as we're concerned. And in the future we will try to do that, we're gonna master these machines..Make 'em do that we say. I think there's place for everything in the music business, I wouldn't want to forbid anyone from expressing themselves no matter what particular machine they use for doing it. But I think we need to separate the good from the bad..To teach our kids to listen to music instead of noise..(laughs)..I'm just being prejudice..


Q:
Can I ask you how come you've got two nicknames? What's the difference between Sugarfoot and Sugar?

Sugar:
ha, ha, ha well..the difference is I'm a grown man now. Sugarfoot was like when I was a kid, like being called a tenderfoot. And as I grew older, I'm not really that young anymore, I kinda prefer Sugar..


Q:
But you're still Sugar?

Sugar:
Actually I prefer Ragus, which is Sugar backwards..But I'll settle for Sugar.


Q:
You worked with Herbie Hancock on his "Perfect Machine" album (1988).

Sugar:
That came about because of a friend of mine named Bootsy Collins in Cincinatti who I used to play with for years, playing together in different bands. He got an opportunity to work with CBS and Herbie Hancock and Bill Laswell eventually decided to call me up. They had Larry Blackmon (Cameo) downstairs doing his next album in that studio in New York where I recorded (with Herbie Hancock). They thought it would be nice to get the real "aww" in there and so they called me up and it was really an experience because I had met Larry Blackmon in the elevator in New York and he was quite shocked to see me.


Q:
I was disappointed when I saw Herbie Hancocks's video for "Vibe Alive". You only appeared for a few seconds, kinda strange since you sing the lead vocals..

Sugar:
Well, after all it was Herbie's video. He had a couple of shots of me in there..But yeah, I did sing lead vocals..I was in the video for three shots. Call Herbie and let him know that you wanted more of the real deal! (laughs).


About a year after this interview, on the 7th of November, 1989, I called back to get some news about what was going on with the group and caught the band rehearsing in James "Diamond" Williams' residence. Diamond proved to be an easy-going, talkative guy who put me on conference and we discussed what was going on in the industry at the time. He also reveiled that their last album "Back" had not done as well as they'd hoped it would and where he thought the future laid for the Ohio Players.


Diamond:
Track records..since three or four months is history. And it's history only to the point that they didn't have the capability of sustaining in the industry and competing with major labels and the ways the system of music is based here in America. It's big industries, big corporations and it takes quite a lot a bit of money to be able to really break a group, not only of our statue, but any new group and any artist that really wants to be broken across the world. Independent labels have a hard time doing that and it takes the major labels with their major distribution that they have, networks, through the United States and around the world to make it happen for a group like us.

Sugar stops playing his guitar and adds:
One of the reasons why it's hard for people that do play real music to get over is that the radio stations in the United States they play the music that's made by the youth. The youth haven't ever heard any real music so they don't know any. And the radio's here are favouring the youth more than they're favouring real music. They don't care about real music, they care about making money. Money makes the world go 'round. That's why real music's got to take a seat for a minute 'til some of these people grow up and have heard enough music to know it when they hear it. 'Cause as it is right now they lack the education as to what real music is. Most of the artists that have hit records out right at the moment haven't been in the hit record business for more than five or ten years so they don't know what somebody knows who's been in the business for thirtyfive years.


Q: You told me that you're in shopping deals and going to aim for major labels, major distribution this time. How much are you willing to compromise to fit in with what's happening today?

Sugar:
Actually, I'm not. I'm not willing to do anything that I can't do and it seems as though I can't be anything but me and so I have to be content with that.

Diamond:
What's important as far as we're concerned right now is that we obviously don't have any hit records. We definitely have to be influenced by the things that we hear that are topping the charts now. But what we want to be again, as we were before, are trend-setters. We wanna be able to continue to create our music as the Ohio Players but being influenced..we have to be influenced and we have to stay abreast of what's going on. But I think a lot of the groups that are happening now have been influenced by us so in retrospect we don't wanna be influenced by them, we want to continue for them to be influenced by us again. We still have something to give.


Q:
Your songs have been sampled by hip-hop artists many times. How do you feel about that and do you get money and the credit for writing the original song?

Diamond:
No, we don't get any money just like James Brown didn't and a number of other artists haven't. Currently within the court system I guess they're trying to rule on that situation. How much of a tune you can use before you have to pay the artist that originally wrote that tune. But right now we don't get anything, other than the fact that it is for us showing a lot of these kids where the original group came from. It only shows the inibility for them to be able to write a groove, therefor they have to use samples.

Sugar:
They can't play that's why they have to steal! They're not musicians, they're rappers..They can't play an instrument so they have to sample. The original musician isn't credited very often and I think it's theft.


Q. I interviewed another big star from "the old school" the other day and he told me that he loved to be sampled, he thought it was flattering and because it made the younger generation interested in his music. Good P.R. and a compliment at the same time..

Sugar:
Whoever told you that is not real bright..He think's it's OK for somebody to take his music and make money and he don't get a dime? I mean, how smart is that? That's exactly what happens. If you take a song..and you butcher it up..it's still my song! I know every note of it 'cause I wrote it. It's not like you can just do damages and take some from the front and put it in the back and tell me it ain't none of mine! That's not gonna work!
(Diamond is highly amused, laughs in the background and adds yeah, yeah)



{reprinted with permission from Maria Granditsky}


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